Sunday, September 30, 2018

Middling 1.3: Books

I was excited recently to read a novel called Meddling Kids. (That title, I'm now realizing, might be what put the word middling in my head.) I was sold on the elevator pitch: What if Scooby Doo and the gang were all grown up and had to return to the scene of their greatest mystery? This fan fiction premise evolved into something different enough to avoid a lawsuit, but I'm not so Gen X that I'm impervious to appeals to my sense of nostalgia. So I ran out and bought it.

The author, Edgar Cantero, does a great job of maintaining humor and developing character throughout. He was particularly effective at solving the Dog Problem: not only how does the dog talk (he doesn't ... or does he?!?) but also, um, how is the dog still alive fifteen years later?!? (It's the grand-dog of the original.) There's a real sense of urgency in this book that makes its length legitimate, and there are some spectacular descriptions of hair, of all things. But I was not prepared for the darkness—necromancy and other aspects of the occult play a central role. I'm no prude, but I don't read a lot of stuff involving the Dark Arts, and frankly, Harry Potter this ain't. Creeped me out a LOT. Also a little conveniently of-the-moment in some character decisions, even though the book is set in the early 90s.

The other book I ran to get recently was When the English Fall by David Williams. Again, credit the elevator pitch: Apocalyptic Amish—a celestial event fries the electrical grid, sending Western civilization into chaos. Nearly all the calamitous fallout takes place offstage in this found journal of an Amish carpenter. The gentleness and complexity of the simple life is evident throughout, and the costly moral imperative of loving your neighbor is on full display. I was regularly moved by this book, and while it can rightly be called a quick read, I read it slow.

Beyond leisure reading, I've edited a bunch of books recently. A couple of personal high points:

Whole, by Steve Wiens. Steve is a fabulous writer, and Whole is a heartfelt book about Shalom as a lifestyle and brokenness as a collective sigh.

When the Soul Listens, by Jan Johnson. This book was first released more than twenty years ago, when contemplative prayer still scared the bejeezus out of evangelicals. Jan's now thoroughly revised it, and it's a lovely primer on a way of praying that's life- and faith-giving.

Drawn In Bible Studies. I also had the opportunity this year to develop a set of Bible studies, featuring the text of The Message (the Bible my company publishes) and art for coloring. They're adorable!

You can get these titles at or wherever you like to buy books. #shoplocal #saynotodrones


Every three or four months I send out a long missive to friends and family members. (If you'd like to get these missives, give me a shout.) I thought I'd post portions of those newsletters here. The theme of the newsletter is life in middle age, with a focus on what I'm reading, what I'm listening to, and how I'm living. This post is from last fall's newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Middling 1.2: Music

I don't know how or why, but apparently central Iowa is a draw for some pretty cool music acts. Exhibit A is a recent show put on by Lucy Wainwright Roche with Suzzy Roche. My aunt Jeannine caught the show with her sisters, and because my aunt is the bestest (and maybe because I had recently referenced the artist online, having swapped songs on social media with a very young colleague), she bought me TWO of their records. She even had them signed for me: on one of them, Lucy simply wrote, "Dave!!!"

Lucy Wainwright Roche's music is, I will quickly aver, most likely an acquired taste. I acquired that taste thanks to Paste magazine, which way back in the day sent a CD sampler of music in the mail with each issue. Those were kinder, more tactile times. On one of those CDs was Lucy's (I'll call her Lucy now, since she calls me Dave) song "Chicago," which made me a little weepy even when I lived there and holds up nicely after a decade or so. Lucy's voice is simple and vulnerable; one might be tempted to dismiss her as overrated, privileged by her impressive musical pedigree (Suzzy is her mother and member of the great vocal group the Roches; her father is a Grammy-winning folk singer), but one should not so dismiss her. Her music does tend to be a little uniform, but so does the music of the Lumineers, and I got tired of them almost immediately, whereas I keep listening to Lucy.

Once you accept the relatively closed musical universe the songs operate within (and if you think that's a critique, listen to the blues for a day and get back to me), you notice the range of her interests. Echoes of early Simon and Garfunkel abound, but with a feminine sensibility that made me realize how masculine Paul Simon is (if you think that's a critique of either Lucy or S&G, you really need to relax). My earlier exposure to Lucy had her square in the hipster/twee column for me (see "Chicago," her cover of "Call Your Girlfriend" and "Seek and Hide," a duet with Colin Meloy of the Decemberists), but these two records make her seem older, more seasoned and sage. Maybe it's the collaboration with her mother.

The collaboration may also explain the cover songs, which were more mainstream than I would have expected: "Desperado," "Rhythm of the Rain" and "Landslide" all seem awfully popular (if you think that's a criticism, you really need to do some inner work). But Lucy is a great interpreter if other people's songs, particularly as showcased on the Beatles' (relatively) deep track "For No One" (on Fairytale and Myth) and Joni Mitchell's "Clouds" (on Mud and Apples). I tend to think you have to earn the right to perform "Clouds" (a song on my funeral playlist, for future reference), and as young as she is, I think Lucy has earned that right.

Anyway, that's the latest on music from me. If you like vulnerable, literary singer-songwriter types, you should look Lucy up.


Every three or four months I send out a long missive to friends and family members. I've taken to posting portions of those newsletters here. The theme of the newsletter is life in middle age, with a focus on what I'm reading, what I'm listening to, and how I'm living. This post is from last fall's newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it.


Sunday, September 02, 2018

Middling 1.1: Old Friends

I've recently taken up newslettering. Every three or four months I send out a long missive to friends and family members who are unlikely to send me a cease-and-desist letter. (If you'd like to get these missives, give me a shout.) I thought I'd post portions of those newsletters here. The theme of the newsletter is life in middle age, with a focus on what I'm reading, what I'm listening to, and how I'm living. What follows is a story from last fall. I hope you enjoy it.


These days I spend a chunk of my time in airports. My work involves a decent amount of travel, lately including trips to California, Oklahoma and, fairly frequently, Illinois. On my most recent trip there I got to steal some time with one of my oldest friends, Chris. He was significant to my faith journey and best man at my wedding, but our lives stopped overlapping years ago, so finding time to see one another has been tough. Chris is better at keeping in touch than I am, but I think we both had resigned ourselves to an essentially virtual relationship.

But this time I had some down time that happened to overlap with some of Chris's discretionary time, and so even though I was landlocked in an extreme northern suburb, and even though Chris lives in the city and had errands in the western suburbs, he did me the kindness of powering through the Chicago sprawl to come see me live and in person.

Chris is "middling" too. We first got to know one another as idiot college freshmen—once even hitching a ride in a trunk together to get to the mall just so we could purchase the new U2 album (Rattle & Hum) and a bottle of Drakkar Noir cologne. (In our defense, that was for the ladies.) But now we're older—so much older. Chris has three daughters, only one of whom is still at home. One is now a college freshman herself, another even older than that.

I don't think relationships are deeper in this season of life than in young adulthood, but I do think there's an attunement to poignancy that settles in over the course of decades. We walked the grounds of the retreat center where I was staying and talked and prayed together for a couple of hours, and even our prayers were older than they used to be. I thought I would be sad when he left, but I wasn't. Instead I felt a kind of satisfaction: This relationship, like so many others, can endure time and distance, in part because of the character of my friends (thank you, friends) and in part because friendship itself has a quality of perseverance that ages well.

We can subvert that quality, I'm sure—dramatizing and even fetishizing our relationships till they can't bear the weight of our idolatry. But to receive friendship with thankfulness and to let our friends be and become who they are and were meant to be, I think, is to experience relationship and even humanity at its most basic and natural. It is to see good, and to enjoy the goodness.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The One-Percent Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, Abridged (with Notes)

I recently took on the audacious task of editing the Bible for the One Percent. What follows is the second chapter of Matthew without all the riff-raff. (To see what's been removed, click here. I've left the explanatory notes for context.) Care to join me in this adventure? Pick a chapter of the Bible and read it with an eye toward what might "afflict the comfortable," and strip it out! Use the hashtag #onepercentbible so I can find it and show it off.


Chapter 2

Now after Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this,* assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,**
from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And they departed to their own country by another way.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother*** to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”****

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.



* Why would a king be troubled by the birth of a child? This assertion undercuts the inherent virtue and serenity of people in whom God has invested earthly authority and, more to the point, might encourage readers to treat those in authority with suspicion rather than trust and deference.

** Of course Bethlehem is not least among the rulers of Judah—it’s the birthplace of Jesus! It’s reasonable to assume that Bethlehem was as regal a place as befits a Messiah and Lord of the universe. So passages that insinuate that Bethlehem is something less are an unhelpful distraction.

*** Again, there being no reason to fear or resist those in whom God has invested earthly authority, the suggestions in this passage that Jesus' king would do him harm are offensive and imprudent.

**** Such an act of aggression by a king would only ever be undertaken with the best interests of the kingdom in mind; meanwhile, the insinuation that such an act even happened, regardless of the king's motives, would threaten societal cohesion. Hence its omission here.